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Dr Downing, honoured guests, colleagues, mums, dads, proud grannies and granddads but as always, most especially you, boys and girls, on behalf of the Board of Governors of Carrickfergus Grammar School I welcome you to our Prize Distribution for the academic year 2017/18, an evening when we celebrate the achievements of your sons and daughters over the last 12 months. But before I extol the virtues of my pupils, ladies and gentlemen, I need to say a few words about my bosses, and one in particular.

My bosses are the 16 members of the school’s Board of Governors.  The Board meets ten times a year, on the last Tuesday of the month, and our meetings last anything between two and three hours.  Then there are the numerous sub-Committee meetings for Finance, appointments, Transfer decisions, school performance targets etc. Last year alone there was a total of 35 meetings, mostly in the evening, all attended by unpaid, civic-minded volunteers whose work is largely unseen and unsung but which is essential for the smooth operation of the school.   Our Board comprises 2 teacher representatives, 4 parent governors, 4 Department of Education reps, 6 from the NI Education Authority and yours truly as their non-voting Secretary.  Each Board has a 4-year lifespan and this evening I want to thank publicly governors who are stepping aside from the 2014-18 Board as the new one begins to take shape: thank you to Mr Ryan Gorman whose input as a serving teacher has so often been invaluable; to Mrs Marcella Black whose wisdom and grammatical correctness are second to none; to Mr Gary Halligan, whose quiet common sense I have always appreciated; and to parent governors Mrs Mari Rodgers and Mr Mark Edgar for their essential parental perspective. 

To all other governors who have opted to remain on the Board, I thank you sincerely for your continued commitment and support – it is no exaggeration to say that I am privileged to sit around the table with people of your calibre.  I welcome to our new Board Mrs Lynn Baird, Ms Jenny Cardy, Mr Andrew MacQuarrie and Mrs Lindsey Morgan-Cunningham who were all elected at last night’s Parents’ Association AGM.  And I can’t let this moment pass without acknowledging the Trojan hard work of outgoing Chair Mrs Lisa Cubitt, her Secretary Mrs Catherine Brown, and most recent Treasurer Mrs Mari Rodgers.  That you are so few in number and yet have contributed so much has been truly impressive.

But I did say that I wanted to mention one of my bosses in particular, and that is the lady who has just spoken to you - Mrs Dorothy White.  When I looked back through the minutes of Board meetings to find the first mention of Dorothy as a school governor I went back through the teenies, the noughties, the nineties and the eighties…and there, on 29 November 1989, I found the first recorded sighting of Dorothy White – that’s 29 years ago, almost 3 decades; that’s what I call commitment with a capital C.  She has ably supported three school principals: the gentlemanly Mr Hugh Jamison; the visionary Mr Kenneth Irwin; and myself.  She has been a model of loyalty, service and astuteness over three decades and it is entirely fitting that she is gifting us the White Cup for Commitment, to be presented for the first time this evening to pupils who have shown true dedication to their task.  I’m now going to ask Kirsty Love and Rebecca Stewart to step forward on to the stage to receive this special award from Mrs White.

The White Cup for Commitment is not the only award to be presented for the first time this evening.  The second award being presented for the first time this evening is the Peter Arthurs Trophy for Dedication to the Mentoring of Junior Instrumentalists, and what a trophy it is.  Peter was one of our Instrumental Tutors.  He tragically passed away in June last year through illness at the far too young age of 36, and being a big man with a big heart he has left a big gap behind him.  Peter was a gifted cornet player in Third Carrickfergus Silver Band where he played alongside many of our current and former pupils, but he was also a hugely popular tutor here for ten happy years.  At the end of February this hall was filled with an audience eager to pay tribute to Peter along with Third Carrick, their youth band, our Senior Choir, and Peter’s family.  This wonderful trophy has been hand-crafted by Peter’s father and it is, beyond a shadow of doubt, a labour of love.  And note the name of the award… the Peter Arthurs Trophy for Dedication to the Mentoring of Junior Instrumentalists, because even more than a skilled instrumentalist, Peter was a contributor.  He gave of himself.  The American jazz composer Roy Ayers says “the true beauty of music is that it connects people.  It carries a message, and musicians are the messengers.”  And beyond his gift for music, Peter had a gift for connecting with people - it was written all over his friendly, jovial face.  He could carry an air, but he had no airs about himself; he could play the cornet beautifully, but he never blew his own trumpet – he was here for others, to teach them, to encourage them, to make a contribution to their lives.  It gives me enormous pleasure to present the Peter Arthurs Trophy for Dedication to the Mentoring of Junior Instrumentalists for the first time to two young gentlemen who have shown outstanding dedication to mentoring junior instrumentalists.  I know they will live up to the spirit of this special award, and I can just see Peter’s face beaming at Tom McGowan and Jamie Wharry.     

Our Opening Prayer this evening was said by another of Nature’s gentlemen, Mr Mark Irwin, who is soon to join Mr Stephen Martin as a Teacher Governor on our new Board.  As well as teaching Business Studies and Maths, Mark is our Examinations Officer.  He looks after everything from AQE to A-levels and last week I asked him to tot up the number of assessments he’s responsible for in a single year – a simple matter, of multiplying the number of external examinations done in the school (by which I mean GCSE and A-level components) by the number of pupils who have to do them – and do you know what that came to??  Over 4000. Over 4000 opportunities in a single year for things to go catastrophically wrong, but none of them did.  Mark, your attention to detail is quite phenomenal and I thank you and your invigilating team for the amazing job you do year on year. 

Our school song – Praestantia in Omnia, meaning Excellence in Everything – was written in 2012 for the school’s 50th Anniversary by our Head of Music, Mr Edward Craig.  “For here it starts within these walls, this school in Carrickfergus”.  and on evenings like this I always make sure that former pupils, whose lives did indeed start within these walls, come back to motivate the current generation, to show that those who wore the same uniform as you, boys and girls, have gone on to achieve significant success, just as you can and, I have absolutely no doubt, will.   

The roll call of our guests of honour in recent years includes former parachute regiment commander Richard Hewitt MBE; Sonja McIlfatrick, Professor of Nursing at the University of Ulster; Dr Richard Wilson who leads the Province’s Child and Adolescents’ Mental Health Services; and last year current school governor and former Head Girl, Mrs Lesley Hogg, Chief Executive of the NI Assembly. Our Guest of Honour this evening is no exception, ladies and gentlemen, for in September 1985, Paula Picken, as she was then known, was about to sit her A-levels here; and I have, of course, a very special reason for welcoming Paula Picken back, for she is now Dr. Paula Downing the newly appointed first Principal of Carrickfergus Academy.  Congratulations Paula!  It is an absolute pleasure to welcome you back to the town, and back to the school where it all started.   For Paula was born and raised here in Carrickfergus, she came to us from Central Primary School in 1979 and was a pupil here to June 1986.  When she left us she went on to Queens University Belfast to take a degree in Biochemistry which she promptly followed up with a PhD in 1994 and a PGCE in ‘95.  She then went on to teach Biology in Grosvenor Grammar School, Belfast before becoming Head of Biology in Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt.  Paula then went from Magherafelt to the Royal School Armagh as Senior Teacher, then to Antrim Grammar where she was Vice Principal, then to Cookstown High School where she was Vice Principal AGAIN, then to Craigavon Senior High School for her first Headship, and finally back home to Carrickfergus for her second.  And now that you’ve made it safely back to BT38, on behalf of the Board of Governors and everyone here this evening I wish you every success in your exciting new role. 

At this point, however, I must also pay tribute to my former colleagues and counterparts, Mrs Jackie Stewart of Downshire Community School and Mr Hedley Webb of Carrickfergus College.  Mrs Stewart and Mr Webb put their hearts and souls into their respective schools, they are both excellent people, true professionals from whom I learned much and with whom I worked closely in the Carrickfergus Learning Community.  I could not have asked for better neighbours and I wish Mrs Stewart well as she begins her well-deserved retirement, and Mr Webb all success in his new role with the Education Authority.     

And so, ladies and gentlemen, to the stars of tonight’s show – your sons and daughters, the future generation, and we can only hope that they make a better job of things than we have.  No political leadership at Stormont, financial crises, Brexiteers vs Remoaners…I definitely have more faith in young people than I have in those who are currently ruling our roost, or not ruling our roost as the case may be.  You have already seen some fine young people on stage this evening, but take Daniel Ritchie, for example, who is about to start his degree course in Film Studies and Production at Queens.  Daniel featured in the Carrickfergus YMCA I Am Whole campaign video, and he dispensed more wisdom with more integrity in three minutes than I have seen in a year’s worth of political interviews. 

Take last year’s Year 9 pupils who wrote, produced and performed a stunning video piece called Heads Up which exploded myths and stigmas around Mental Health.  This was premiered in the town’s Omniplex in February to rave reviews around Northern Ireland.

Take Mya McCalmont’s exemplary sense of civic responsibility with her public speaking for Women’s Aid, her meeting with senior civil servants on providing adequate mental health education or, along with Zara Logan, her driving force status behind the debating society.

Take Abby Horner’s work with the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner – Abby has been chosen to represent Northern Ireland at a United Nations Conference in Geneva later this term – or Matthew Black who was selected to travel to Chicago on Northern Ireland Rotary’s Towards a Better Understanding programme.  And I could go on – so please forgive me if you have cleared the oceans’ plastic or reversed climate change – but my point is this: while our local politicians squabble, while both main parties at Westminster are dogged by in-fighting, and while the leader of the Western World tweets divisiveness and hostility, our young people continue to provide hope for a more connected future.  

Boys and girls, when we are young we simply don’t realise how much adults actually depend on us: we don’t realise that we hold in our everyday decisions the hopes of our parents, our grandparents and our teachers.  But make no mistake about it, pupils, you are the future, and the more you develop your talents the brighter that future will be, so keep going!

At a time when world news seems gloomier than ever I can thoroughly recommend the weekly pick-me-up that is CGS News.  This is put together every week single-handedly by our Clerical Officer Mrs Heidi Hirk.  It’s FULL of good news and  I thank Mrs Kirk for her outstanding editorial skills.

This year’s GCSE results were so good that we had to amend our awards and colours system to acknowledge them.  As you will see in your booklets no fewer than 17 pupils achieved School Honours for academic achievement.  This means that their average grade in 9 subjects was at least halfway between an A and an A*.  At the top of the year are Charlotte Blair, Rebecca Irvine, Jessica Smyth and Katie Sullivan with a stellar 10 A* grades apiece, but the depth of talent in this year group means that they can’t rest on their laurels as our top group of 17 pupils have achieved a stunning 119 A*s and 46 As between them!  These pupils will be among the first to receive school colours and school colours with distinction for their academic attainment, and thoroughly well-deserved too.  In fact almost half of all the grades received in the school this year were at A or A* with 27 pupils achieving top grades in nine subjects. 

Well done too to our Year 11 pupils who took GCSE Mathematics one year early in order to begin Further Mathematics this month –  a 100% success rate with 22 A*s.

Our A-level results similarly testified to the hard work of our young people, the dedication of their teachers and the support of their parents.  University placements are largely secured at this stage, along with others such as Joel White, who takes up a much sought after place in the PriceWaterhouseCoopers School Leavers’ Programme, and Luke Baker who is now in the DeLoitte Brightstart Programme.  We are also delighted that Benjamin Gardner secured a place on an exciting new honours degree course in the University of Ulster which marries Football Coaching with Business Management…so Michael O-Neill look out!  With over 90% of our A-level pupils attaining at least one top grade they are certainly well placed to take the next big step into their future.  The broad range of university options accessed by our pupils demonstrates the flexibility and focus of the school’s Careers Department - it has properly avoided a “one size fits all” approach and aims to support each student with their own individual hopes and aspirations.  Well done and good luck to Nicole Alderdice (who is beginning her degree course in Dietetics at Ulster University), Anna Coulter (English and Linguistics at QUB), Megan Davis (Medicine at Dundee), Hannah Fugard (Medicine at QUB), Victoria Johnston (Product Design at Ulster), Lauren McAllister (Human Biology at QUB), Rebecca McIlwaine (Actuarial Science at QUB), and Stef Meucci (Physics at Exeter) all of whom achieved at least three top grades each. 
The work of the Carrickfergus Learning Community once again proved crucial in advancing pupils’ prospects and in this new era I look forward to continued collaboration with Carrickfergus Academy and Ulidia Integrated College for the benefit of all sixth form students in the Borough.

But when the school doors close behind us other doors open in their place, and in your booklets you will see just some of the accomplishments of our former pupils.  It is always a delight to hear that former CGSers, like Dr Downing, are not only doing well, but succeeding mightily in the big bad world.  Witness James Carson and Daniel Laverty, for example, winners of the prestigious Invent Student Award last year for their co-founded Firs Aid business called Hurtlockers.

And then there is Natalie Hall who picked up two awards from the University of Ulster’s Business School – the KPMG Award for the highest performing student and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants Achievement of Excellence award.  In fact Natalie is now the third straight winner of this award from Carrickfergus Grammar School following in the footsteps of Thomas Livings and Lyndsey Reid.  And former Head Girl Erin McAllister has just picked up £1500 for landing at the top of her year at Queens in her Law and Language Degree.  The lesson here, boys and girls, is to aim high, for you too can compete with the very best.

Our Year 13 students have already prepared the ground for next year’s A-level results with a very promising set of AS grades.  In line with national outcomes our boys performed slightly better than our girls for the first time in many years – well done boys.  However Daniel Alderdice, Scott Gray, Tom McGowan, Philip Stewart and Jonathan Wilson have Evie Bennett, Sarah Hendawy, Emma Madden and Hannah McKay snapping at their heels with fifteen top grades between them so there is no room for complacency boys.

All of these super grades are, of course, important, but education, as we mums and dads know, is about more than examinations – it’s about the whole person.  That is why I particularly welcome the emphasis that our Head of Pastoral Care, Mrs Lesley Kane, has placed on fostering good mental and emotional health.  You may have heard on today’s BBC News that the NI Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, has just published a highly critical review of mental health services for children and young people, so I am delighted that our pupils have opportunities to embrace support in so many ways.  

In fact much of what happens in the school’s extra-curriculum – sport, music, Scripture Union, Habitat for Humanity, Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, trips, tours and clubs - the important stuff that goes on outside the classroom, most of it could be placed under the Take 5 umbrella, the campaign that urges us to do 5 things to keep our heads happy: Connect, Learn, Be active, Take notice, and Give. 

In September our Academic and Peer Mentors were trained up for kindness and support and went on to complete a project on resilience facilitated by the NI Arts Council; in October we married our Health and Wellbeing week to a Healthy Eating message; in November we ran Action Mental Health workshops for every year group; in December every pupil in the school signed the Unfollowbullying Pledge, a charter drawn up by our Anti-bullying ambassadors who were trained in May by The Diana Foundation.  It came as no surprise therefore when the Controlled Schools Support Council, which represents 560 schools right across the Province, identified this school as a centre of good practice for Pastoral Care, whilst Action Mental Health has nominated us for a “Headfirst Award” for raising awareness and tackling stigma.  The winners will be announced at a special ceremony to take place at W5 on World Mental Health Day, the 10th October, so keep your fingers crossed for us.

At this time of the year AQE activities begin – I’m sure you remember them well – and every year I try to emphasise to the P7 pupils and their parents that the AQE score may be a number, but their child is not.  At previous events you may have heard me make much of the fact that in this school we always make it our business to combine academic challenge with pastoral support, and I hope that your experience as pupils and parents does bear that out. 

The scourge of poor mental health can take hold stealthily, and schools must do all we can to educate minds in more ways than one.  The advent of social media has many advantages, but there is no doubt that it can also bring unseen pressures and unspoken worries to formative young minds.  A broken limb can be seen, but a broken spirit can lie invisible. 

This was driven home painfully in March of this year when we learnt of the sudden death of our former pupil, Ben Finch.  Ben joined us in 2007 as a bright, pleasant child and left us in 2013 as a young gentleman with tremendous potential.  He took up his place in Queens from where he graduated with a strong honours degree and had made an impressive start to his career with Action Renewables when as a bolt from the blue he took his own life.  May we take a moment now to remember Ben Finch, Peter Arthurs, and those in all our lives who are gone, but lovingly remembered…

It is my privilege to work with teachers, technicians, counsellors, building and clerical staff, each and every one of whom wants and works for the best interests of our pupils.  Should you ever have a concern about your child’s wellbeing, please lift the phone, and count on our support.

I mentioned earlier that four awards are being presented for the first time this evening, and we have already seen two of them.  The third is the Marcella Lively Cup for Art & Design which was gifted by our former Vice Principal and which will be presented to Rebecca Morrow, who is also receiving the Clarke Shield for Endeavour for having faced down the horror of stroke at such an unexpected age.  Undeterred, however, Rebecca has completed her A-levels and now takes up a place at the University of Ulster to study Art & Design.  Her courage has also been recognised outside school as Rebecca has achieved a Life After Stroke Award for her A-level Art exhibition based on her experience.  So can I ask Rebecca to come forward now and receive her awards from Dr Downing?

The fourth and final award to be presented for the first time this evening is one that touches three generations in the hall.  Mr Hugh Jamison, whose kindly face you can see on the front wall to your left, was the second headmaster of the school and a man to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.  Mr Jamison (for despite his repeated entreaties I could never call him Hugh) sadly passed away two years ago at the prodigious age of 91.  I am delighted that Mr Jamison’s wife, Joan, has joined us this evening along with her daughter Mrs Linda McAllister, now a teacher at Oakfield Primary School and mum to Lauren, who is leaving us to study Human Biology at Queens, and Rachel in Year 13.

Mr Jamison was Deputy Head from 1963 to 1977 and then Principal until his retirement in 1990 after 28 years of dedicated service.  Education might have changed in the decades which have passed since Mr Jamison took his first History lesson, but the basic principles which he embodied - service, steadfastness and dignity – remain timeless examples to us all.  So for the first time this year we are presenting the HS Jamison Award for, fittingly, outstanding contribution to the life of the school and I’m going to ask last year’s Head Boy, John Brodison, to come forward to receive it. 

I should add that this award is now to be made to all outgoing Head Boys and Head Girls, but last year’s Head Girl, Megan Davis, is unable to be with us this evening as she has already started her medical course in Dundee. 

Well, this has been an evening of firsts and lasts, and this is my last Prize Distribution address as I shall be retiring at the end of March.  By the time March comes I’ll have been on the planet for six decades and been sitting at the Principal’s desk for ten years, so, all things considered, it’s time to move over and let someone else take the reins.  The new appointment should be made by December, and that gives three months for handover.  Then at the end of March the new Principal has the comparatively quiet third term to get to grips with the photocopier and the school can hit the ground running in September.     



 

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